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Three questions the Cleveland Cavaliers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 51-31, won the Eastern Conference out of the second seed, lost to Warriors in NBA Finals.

I know what you did last summer: It was a busy summer of roster changes, something you don’t usually see from a team that has been to three straight Finals. Kyrie Irving didn’t want to be the guy left behind if LeBron James bolts the team next summer, so he pushed for a trade. New GM Koby Altman struck a deal that sent Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn first-round pick in the upcoming draft. In the past week, the Cavaliers signed Dwyane Wade as a free agent (after his buyout from Chicago). Gone from the Cavaliers are Deron Williams and James Jones, but the team added depth with the trade and the additions of free agents Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CAVALIERS MUST ANSWER

1) When does Isaiah Thomas get back on the court? And how well can he move? The trade with Boston was a perfect combination for Cleveland of keeping an eye on the future (the Brooklyn pick) and still winning now in LeBron’s prime by getting All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — if Thomas is healthy. Which he is not right now. The hip injury that ended his playoff run early still has him sidelined.

When will he return? On media day the Cavaliers were honest and said January. About halfway through the NBA season. Which creates a challenge for those first 40 games or so (see the next question) but is not insurmountable because the Cavaliers have one LeBron James.

The bigger question: How good will Isaiah Thomas be when he does return? I fear we saw peak Thomas last season, when he was an All-NBA player and fifth in MVP voting. How well with Thomas move when he returns, how explosive will he be? Can he be anything like the spark plug point guard we have come to know? His game is based on that athleticism and crafty moves, if those are limited so is he. It matters to Cleveland as they try to integrate him into the offense for the playoffs — if they get 90 percent of that Thomas it is a big boost for the Cavs, but if it’s 70 percent things get tougher. How he bounces back also matters to Thomas, who is a free agent after this season and needs to show he is healthy to get paid anywhere near what he wants.

2) Cleveland has a lot of talent, but does it fit together? On paper, the Cavaliers are deeper this season — Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose at the point, J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, and Kyle Korver at the two, Jeff Green behind LeBron on the wing, Jae Crowder adding to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson up front. There’s a reason I — and many others — are still picking the Cavaliers to come out of the East.

But when you start to put rotations together, things get harder, because all the talent doesn’t fit together well, especially for the first half of the season when Thomas is out. For example, can the Cavaliers really play Rose and Wade together with LeBron? Neither Rose nor Wade are good off the ball, they need the rock in their hands to create to do damage, but neither of them is near the creator or floor general LeBron is. Do the Cavs take the ball out of LeBron’s hands in this scenario? Remember, this is not the Wade from LeBron’s first couple seasons in Miami, this is a guy on the decline who can still create but is limited in other ways. Plus, both Rose and Wade (and Thomas when he returns) are limited defensively.

I like what Tyronn Lue is doing to start games: Rose, J.R. Smith, LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Kevin Love. That is a switchable and passable defensive lineup that will have great floor spacing on offense. Rose can create a little, but most of that should still fall to LeBron. It gets better when Thomas is back and Rose can go to the second unit with Wade — those two can do the shot creating and scoring with that group against other benches, and Tristan Thompson can handle the defense and dirty work with that unit. (Credit Thompson for taking his move to the second unit, which most would see as a demotion, as an opportunity.)

Cleveland has the talent to beat 28 other teams in a seven-game series, but the questions of fit come back to haunt them against their biggest foe. If the Cavs are still playing in June.

3) Does the “is LeBron staying?” saga weigh on the team? Probably not. Or at least not much. This is a team of veterans who know how to shut out the noise from the outside.

However, every move this team and LeBron make all season will be viewed through the prism of “what does this say about LeBron’s future?” And if for whatever reason this team gets off to a relatively slow start and things start to go sideways, that pressure will ramp up. If that losing starts to creep into the locker room — J.R. Smith and Crowder get into it again, Thompson gets frustrated with his bench role, or a million other things — then it becomes a problem. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s possible. This could be LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, and that certainly can become an issue.

Clippers stun Warriors by forcing rare Game 6

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The Warriors feel inevitable.

So, when the Clippers let a 15-point second-half lead dwindle away in the final minutes, the game and series appeared over.

Instead, Lou Williams responded with a personal 8-0 – including a four-point play – run that sparked L.A. to a 129-121 Game 5 win Wednesday. The last two teams to lose a home Game 5 while leading a series 3-1:

  • 2019 Warriors vs. Clippers
  • 2016 Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Golden State will try to avoid any more comparisons to those 2016 NBA Finals in Game 6 Friday. The Warriors have won both their games in L.A. in this series, but have dropped two in Oakland – more home losses than they had the previous two postseasons combined.

The Rockets took care of business earlier in the night, but Golden State didn’t clinch its place in the anticipated rematch. The Clippers just aren’t making it easy.

“It’s a little mix of arrogance and just hard work,” said Williams, who scored 33 points and dished 10 assists. “We have a lot of young guys. We have a lot of veterans, guys that want to prove their names. We were wrote off early on in the year, people saying we weren’t a good team. We take all of those things. We digest it, and we try to make as much as we can out of it. So, it’s shown in this series.”

These Clippers have such an awesome identity.

They easily could have cherished their 31-point comeback in Game 2 as their moment of the series. But they kept fighting.

Patrick Beverley (17 points, 14 rebounds and four assists) was everywhere. Montrezl Harrell (24 points on 11-of-14 shooting with a clutch block) controlled the paint. Danilo Gallinari (26 points) got rolling after a couple off games.

L.A. has already won more games (two) than anyone except Houston (which won three in last year’s Western conference finals) in a series against the Warriors since they added Kevin Durant.

Durant scored 45 tonight, but Golden State turned up its defensive intensity too late.

“Build from this game? This game sucked. We lost,” Klay Thompson said. “Let’s go win Friday. Let’s win big. Let’s freaking win by 30 like we’re capable of.”

Rockets set up rematch with Warriors

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Bring on the Warriors.

The Rockets did their part to set up a highly anticipated rematch by dispatching the Jazz 100-93 in Game 5 Wednesday. With a 4-1 series victory over Utah, Houston enters the second round to face the winner of Warriors-Clippers. Golden State leads 3-1 entering its own Game 5 tonight.

Houston pushed these Warriors harder than anyone has, falling just short in last year’s seven-game Western Conference finals. James Harden said he thinks about losing Games 6 and 7 every day.

Will the Rockets supplant Golden State this year?

Harden is better. Chris Paul is healthy. The Warriors – their veterans a year older, Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency causing more drama – look somewhat vulnerable.

But Golden State is still favored in the second-round series before even winning its first-round series. The Warriors have historic top-end talent, and that usually wins out in the playoffs.

It did for the Rockets against the Jazz.

Harden (26 points, six rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals) and Paul (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals) weren’t great tonight. But they gave Houston enough considering Utah’s best player was Royce O'Neale (18 points on 8-of-13 shooting).

Donovan Mitchell (12 points on 4-of-22 shooting, including 0-for-9 on 3-pointers, with only one assist and five turnovers) had an awful game I doubt he’ll forget. His competitiveness and self-awareness are so impressive. I bet this only fuels him.

The Rockets are ready now.

They’ve won 24 of their last 29 games, going back to the regular season. They like to play a high-scoring style, but they’re versatile enough to adjust. P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela keyed a strong defensive performance tonight.

Houston probably won’t beat Golden State. But the Rockets have the opportunity they’ve desired for the last 332 days.

PBT Podcast: Looking ahead at the NBA playoffs second round

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Boston vs. Milwaukee. Philadelphia vs. Toronto. Houston vs. Golden State.

The first round of the NBA playoffs had plenty of emotion — just ask Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook — but it was short, with very possibly only one series going at least six games.

The second round? That’s not going to be so quick, and it is filled with even matchups that present a lot of questions.

Is this the Rockets’ year? They have the formula, can they execute it? The Bucks were the best team in the regular season, but can they carry that elite level into the second round against Boston? Is Toronto the team to beat?

Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports/Real GM/Celticsblog to look ahead at the second round, and even talk a little about what is next for Oklahoma City.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Sebastian Telfair convicted on gun charge, faces up to 15 years in prison

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Sebastian Telfair – a high school phenom from Coney Island, N.Y. – was the No. 13 pick in the 2004 NBA draft. He never lived up to the hype, but he still stuck in the NBA for 10 seasons, with the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Suns, Celtics, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors and Cavaliers.

He got arrested in 2017 for gun crimes and just his lost his trial.

TMZ:

Sebastian Telfair has been convicted of possessing a firearm … and could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Don’t assume Telfair will get the maximum sentence, but this is a serious conviction and will likely carry a serious sentence.